In the 1980s and 1990s, a bitter argument raged among political researchers between “state autonomy” theorists who asserted that the American state could at times act independently and “power structure” theorists who asserted that America was dominated by a social network of moneyed people and their associates interacting and coordinating through social bodies. Both theoretical camps took pains to distance themselves from “mere instrumentalism,” the idea that the wealthy simply buy political access through the crude application of money. Lately, the evidence for mere instrumentalism is making a comeback.
Earlier this month, the 501c4 corporation Americans Elect broke its pledge to refrain from supporting or opposing any candidate and another pledge in its bylaws that “All Delegates and persons registered to vote in Americans Elect have a fundamental right to fully and meaningfully participate in the business and affairs of Americans Elect without any monetary encumbrance.” The violation: taking $1.75 million from three tycoons of Wall Street — John Burbank III, Michael Bloomberg and Peter Ackerman — and spending it on advertisements that directly support U.S. Senate candidate Angus King and directly oppose U.S. Senate candidate Charlie Summers. The candidates are running in Maine, where the cost of running a media campaign is low. Through direct mailings and television advertisements, Americans Elect is overwhelming the state of Maine with pro-King and anti-Summers messages.
There hasn’t been a lick of news coverage of Americans Elect’s spending in the Maine Senate race for over two weeks now, but that doesn’t mean Americans Elect has stopped spending its Wall Street money. Federal Election Commission records show that on October 23, Americans Elect spent $44,847.55 on direct mail from an address inside the Washington, DC beltway to voters in Maine, mail telling them to vote for Angus King for Senate. FEC records also show that on October 26, Americans Elect spent $375,050 on TV advertisements to be played on nine stations from the northern tip to the southern edge of the state — advertisements that both promote Angus King and oppose the candidacy of Charlie Summers.
Americans Elect keeps right on breaking its explicit promises to its delegates and the American people, treating the political system as its instrument to play with. Why? Because it can. When hardly anyone even notices this behavior, Americans Elect can’t expect to reap a penalty for it. Under its current name or under a new name, expect the activities of Americans Elect to persist.